By Darren Hellwege, KBIA Sports Director
There are signs, like the omission of Colorado and some of the seeds, that our thought that the Tigers play in the second best conference in America is not exactly universally held. But, as we’ll see, there are still teams with a road ahead of them to stand up and prove the critics wrong. Some Big 12 teams may make a nice little run in the tourney and at least one, and if you want to dream big two, have legitimate chances at a national championship. Here’s my look at all 12 conference teams (next year at this point I’ll be able to do 1/6 less work, awesome!) their road ahead in the Big Dance or Little Dance (NIT) and for those whose dance card is empty, we explore the future…including two coaching changes already announced.
BAYLOR—About as disappointing an end to the season as one could imagine. First, they caught Oklahoma at their hottest and lost in the first round of the Big 12’s in Kansas City. Then, they were left out of the NIT, some theorize they were dropped in order to make room for Colorado, whom many thought were NCAA bound. But, perhaps the worst news (and another possible reason the NIT said ‘no thanks’) is the story that still hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the program, the potential violations regarding top freshman Perry Jones, III. This is a program whose history requires a higher standard, and it appears they may not be meeting it. If this is as problematic as it appears it might be, it could have very serious repercussions for a long time for Baylor athletics. Fortunately for Baylor fans there is a great basketball team on campus. They’re called the Lady Bears, and while men’s basketball fans along the Brazos sweat out this off-season, Kim Mulkey’s team is one of two or three good enough to keep Geno Auriemma worrying. At least a little.
COLORADO—First, let’s save the tears about NCAA snubs for teams that deserve it. The four extra spots in the Big Dance should have given more opportunity for the good teams out of so-called “mid-major” conferences. Not Georgia, not Clemson, not Virginia Tech, and not the 13-loss Colorado Buffaloes. Feel bad for St. Mary’s or Harvard or especially Missouri State.
(note: first Missouri Valley champ EVER left out of tourney, 10 road wins, and of the top five snubs with highest RPI in tourney history, three come from the same school—Missouri State University. And to those who yell “schedule!” riddle me this—what top team offered to play the Bears or Gaels, and got turned down? These schools play the teams that will play them)
So, the Buffs will play in the NIT. They’ll start against Texas Southern, and it’s very simple to sum up their chances. If the team that beat KSU three times this season and looked so strong in Kansas City shows up, they have a good chance to go places in the NIT. But, as happens so often with so-called “snubs,” real or imagined, if they start pouting because they think they deserved a bid to the NCAA, the trip to the NIT could be short-lived.
IOWA STATE—Ouch. They had a rough season in the first year under coach Fred Hoiberg (No, I will NOT call him…that) finishing right at .500, playing the game of the year in Kansas City and still losing by two to Colorado, and losing quite a lot between seniors and transfers. No postseason, and no signs yet of much to be optimistic about for the near-future. Unless it’s the hope that we can get the media to stop calling Hoiberg “The Mayor” as if it were terribly clever. One thing one can hold to here is that, for a school with the disadvantages ISU has as far as finances and facilities and being in, you know, Ames, Iowa they don’t do bad at all. Iowa State has one of the better athletic departments in the conference in this writer’s opinion.
KANSAS—KU swept through the Big 12 tourney, and having sat up close and personal and watched them play a couple of times, I reach this conclusion…Kansas is an awfully good team. Gee, I should charge for this wisdom, huh? They have great talent and athleticism, and Bill Self is the kind of coach that can take his and beat yours, then take yours and beat his. I grew up on Chip Hilton books and idolizing John Wooden, and thus have old-fashioned values when it comes to sportsmanship so I’m not a huge fan of some of the bragging and chest-beating that goes on with the Jayhawks, but they are the best team in the Big 12 and the next three weeks may confirm my suspicion that they are, indeed, the best team in the nation. They should cakewalk through first weekend, then probably get a swarming defensive team in Louisville which time spent playing Mizzou should prepare KU for nicely. Maybe a game with Notre Dame for the trip to the Final Four, and while KU has shown the ability to lose to the Bucknells of the world in the Tourney, I don’t see it this year. Kansas is my pick to cut down the nets.
KANSAS STATE—I’m very sure Kansas is great. I’m not as very sure about anything when it comes to Kansas State except I love Jacob Pullen. He got my vote for Big 12 Player of the Year in spite of the slow start. A top-notch scorer AND one of the two or three best defenders in the Conference? What more do you want? Yes, they looked shaky in Kansas City, but they’ve been as good as can be the last month or so, and I choose to think KC was an aberration. Utah State’s a popular upset pick, and I’m chuckling at that notion. Kansas State wins that game by 20 unless something goofy happens. May have been a little underseeded at five, but they’re a good bet for the Sweet Sixteen and IF they play their very best, could give Pitt a run for their money in the third round.
MISSOURI—Yeah, you saw it as much as I did. This is a confounding team, a team we all thought was a top-ten team for much of the year was clobbered by inability to win on the road, Kim English’s shooting woes, Ricardo Ratliffe’s (temporary, I predict) backslide. I still think this is a very good team…next year. This year, with Cincinnati in round one and then probably UConn, it’s time to start getting into baseball and spring football. Mizzou basketball is very nearly over for the year.
NEBRASKA—I was pleased to see Doc Sadler get a contract extension, he’s a good guy whom the Big Ten media will enjoy a lot. But he’s also shown very little ability to turn that program into anything more than mediocre, and since they’re not “ours” any more, I hope that’s as good as they ever get, the darn traitors (oops, did I say that out loud?). They’re NIT bound, and had they not lost in the final seconds to Oklahoma State, they might actually have snuck into the NCAA. They start their NIT run against a pretty strong Wichita State team, and if they win get either Virginia Tech (see my comments about “snubs” and their NIT fortunes in the section on Colorado) or Bethune-Cookman.
OKLAHOMA—Had a dreadful season, and in spite of a fine upset win in Kansas City, Jeff Capel was given the gate. Hard to believe how far this program’s fallen, and how quickly. But, there’s a long, proud tradition in Oklahoma basketball and one assumes if they make the right hire here that Joe Castiglione and the Big Red will get turned in the right direction some day. But not next year.
OKLAHOMA STATE—The biggest disappointment in the Big 12, save possibly Mizzou. They started off great, then fell to pieces in Big 12 play. They’ve also dealt with some dicey off-court issues. Still, they had a chance to beat KU in the final seconds (yeah, I know they puked that chance all over their shoes, but they still played a great game) and with a win last night in round one of the NIT appear to have a new spark. They looked very sharp in jumping on Harvard, and with either Washington State or Long Beach State next, neither especially scary, they might put a little run together to wrap up the season. Don’t let that fool you, though, nobody in Stillwater is excited about a nice little NIT run. Oklahoma State fans expect NCAAs, Sweet Sixteens, greatness. Travis Ford is moving in the wrong direction. Much more movement in that direction and he may be in the Jeff Capel Memorial Hot Seat.
TEXAS—Texas as a 4-seed is a clear sign (along with Colorado’s omission) that there are those in college basketball thinking the Big 12 is down. And the brackets set up to give Texas the chance to prove them wrong. The Horns should smoke Oakland and I expect them to handle Arizona pretty well, which gives them…Duke. Frankly, while I am as impressed with what BYU has accomplished as anyone, and get that UConn comes from the best conference in America, there is no team in this bracket that should scare the Dukies more than Texas. Yeah, they’ve been a bit shaky of late, and yeah, they tend to turn into a pumpkin the second weekend of the NCAA year after year. Maybe this is the year Barnes shows he can coach into April, after all. Their big men are studs, they have shooters, they have awesome defense, and they showed me more from their bench in Kansas City than I expected. Jordan Hamilton plays his best, and this could be a major 3rd round upset, and do big things for Big 12 pride.
TEXAS A&M—Again, an underseeded team showing the Big 12 ain’t all that in some peoples’ eyes. Fine, so you go prove them wrong. Unfortunately, after a game against a Florida State team that, yeah, yeah, beat Duke a month ago. But, they finished the season 6-5 and I think the Aggies knock them off. Second round, they get the two-seed that many thought was a one, Notre Dame. Ouch. Notre Dame’s strong, smart, experienced, and while the kind of defense A&M plays could potentially trip up the Irish, I wouldn’t count on it. I think the Irish will be in Houston with Kansas, Duke, and just because it’s no fun picking a bunch of 1-seeds, how about Syracuse, a team that looked like world beaters early in the season and may be poised to sneak up on Ohio State.
TEXAS TECH—Worst team in the league this season, even worse than Oklahoma, leading to the firing of Pat Knight. May have been premature…heck, forget the may, it was premature. But with all the bad craziness in Lubbock lately, a fresh start for basketball is something the fans wanted, so what the heck. The new coach will have plenty of chances early to bring in “his kind of players,” this year’s Red Raider team was chock full of seniors. So, unless they hire the greatest recruiter ever, look for a couple of dry seasons in West Texas.